The Woman Question (1888)

by Victor S. Yarros (186?-1956)

(writing as Victor)

WQ.1 Possibly at the expense of my reputation as a radical, but certainly to the entertainment and interest of Liberty’s readers, I intend to express in this article some conservative thoughts on the so-called Woman Question. This I will do, not so much because of my desire to present my own views, but because it appears to me a good way of eliciting elaborate statement and clear explanation from those with whom I shall take the issue. The discussion (if such it may be called) of the Woman Question has so far been confined to platitudes and trivial points, while it has been deemed one of the absolute requisites of an advanced, progressive, and liberal thinker to believe in equality of the sexes and to indulge in cheap talk about economic emancipation, equal rights, etc., of the “weaker sex.” Declining to repeat this talk in a parrot-like fashion, I ask to be offered some solid arguments in support of the position which I now, with all my willingness, cannot consider well-grounded.
WQ.2 But let me state at the outset that I have not a word to say against the demand – which, alas! is not very loud and determined – on the part of women for a “free field and no favors.” I fully believe in liberty for man, woman, and child. So far as I know of Proudhon’s views upon the function and sphere of woman I utterly oppose it, and his exclusion of the relations of the family institution from the application of his principle of free contract I regard as arbitrary, illogical, and contradictory of his whole philosophy. Nor, on the other hand, am I jealous of the privileges and special homage accorded by the bourgeois world to women, and do not in the least share the sentiments of E. Belford Bax, who declaims against an alleged tyranny exercised by women over men. Not denying that such “tyranny” exists, I assert that Mr. Bax entirely misunderstands its real nature. Man’s condescension he mistakes for submission; marks of woman’s degradation and slavery his obliquity of vision transforms into properties of sovereignty. Tchernychewsky takes the correct view upon this matter when he makes Vera Pavlovna say; “Men should not kiss women's hands, since that ought to be offensive to women, for it means that men do not consider them as human beings like themselves, but believe that they can in no way lower their dignity before a woman, so inferior to them is she, and that no marks of affected respect for her can lessen their superiority.” What to Mr. Bax appears to be servility on the part of men is really but insult added to injury.
WQ.3 Recognizing, then, this fact of injury and insult which woman complains about, I sympathize with her in the aspiration for self-control and in the demand to be allowed freedom and opportunities for development. And if this desire to work out her own salvation were the whole sum and substance of the “woman question,” that would have been to me a question solved.
WQ.4 Women, in the first place, are the slaves of capital. In this their cause is man’s cause, though the yoke of capitalism falls upon them with more crushing effect. This slavery would not outlive the State and legality for a single day, for it has no other root to depend upon for continued existence.
WQ.5 In addition to this burden of economic servitude women are subjected to the misery of being the property, tool, and plaything of man, and have neither power to protest against the use, nor remedies against abuse, of their persons by their male masters. This slavery is sanctioned by custom, prejudice, tradition, and prevailing notions of morality and purity. Intelligence is the cure for this. Man’s brutality and cruelty will be buried in the same grave in which his own and woman's superstition and fixed ideas will be forever laid away.
WQ.6 Normal economic conditions and increased opportunities for intellectual development are in this case, as in all others related to the social problem, the indispensable agents of improvement. It would be idle to discuss the possibility of any change under the present industrial and political arrangements. Woman must now content herself with indirectly furthering the cause nearest to her heart: she must simply join her strength to that of man – and even the most selfish of us will wish more power to her elbow – in his effort to establish proper relations between capital and labor. And only after the material foundations of the new social order have been successfully built, will the Woman Question proper loom up and claim attention.
WQ.7 Let us attempt here to briefly summarize the problem, the remedy, and the reasoning process by which the same are formulated, so far as we understand the position of the most extreme radicals in our ranks.
WQ.8 “Woman must enjoy equal rights and equal freedom and must in all respects be the equal of man. They must contract on absolutely equal terms.” How attain and permanently maintain this condition?
WQ.9 “Economical independence is the first and most important thing to women who would be and remain free. When a woman ceases to be self-supporting and begins to look to man for means of life, she deprives herself of independence, dignity, and power of commanding respect. Complete control over her own person and offspring is the next essential thing. With this right of disposing of her own favors she must never part, and to no one must she delegate the privilege of determining the circumstances under which she shall assume the function of maternity. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
WQ.10 “Communism being the grave of individuality, woman must beware of ever abandoning her own private home, over which she exercises sovereign authority, to enter into man’s dominion. Someone is bound to rule in the family, and the chances are decidedly against her gaining the supremacy, even if this be considered a more desirable issue than the other alternative.
WQ.11 “The ideal, then, is: independent men and women, in independent homes, leading separate and independent lives, with full freedom to form and dissolve relations, and with perfectly equal opportunities to happiness, development, and love.”
WQ.12 Beautiful as this ideal may seem to some, I confess that it inspires me with no enthusiasm. On the contrary, it seems to me unnatural, impossible, and utterly utopian. While welcoming liberty, I do not anticipate such results.
WQ.13 Pray, let no reader hastily condemn my lack of sober judgment and pronounce me a sentimentalist and a dreamer. I am the most prosaic and unemotional of mortals. I utterly lack the “moral sense.” Crime arouses no indignation in my breast, and vice fills me with no abhorrence. “Virtue” has a very half hearted champion in me. For instance, I am never moved to any outburst of intense feelings by the hue and cry against prostitution. I cannot h elp regarding it as entirely proper and natural for a woman to accept pecuniary remuneration for sexual intercourse with man, just as she accepts it for other services involving surrender of time or labor-power. The idea of sacredness of sex appears to me as a survival and result of antique worship of the sexual organs, which Christian theology unconsciously assimilated and made part of its own mystical teachings. And, though the mysteries of love are as yet unexplained, nevertheless it is safe to say, a priori, that a large proportion of what has been written about it is nonsense and pure imagination. Thus it will be seen that what I have to say on this subject is born, not of sentiments, but of thought and dispassionate reflection.
WQ.14 “Right” is but a euphonious equivalent of “might” – a melodious and gentle term substituting the harsh “might” to the religious Bunthornes. A “right” to a thing means the capacity to profitably secure it. The rights of an individual are fixed by his powers of body and mind. He has a right to appropriate and enjoy all that he can. If all men were intelligent and mentally free, no need of theoretical enlightenment and urging as to the principle of equal rights would exist. Each would naturally remain in full possession of his own. But in the absence of this intelligence, chaos is the rule. Some manage to obtain shares far beyond their individual capacity of procuring wealth, and many ignorantly and stupidly suffer themselves to be most unceremoniously used and abused by cunning people. Consequently it becomes necessary to open their eyes to this fact of their getting results utterly disproportionate to their expenditure of energy, and of their perfect ability to get and keep the entire amount without any external aid. Instead, however, of saying, “you can take it,” we are obliged to speak of their “right” to take it, – so have the jugglers and tricksters confused their ideas of true and real titles to property. But it is evident that no one would stop to argue about the right to do a thing which cannot be done.
WQ.15 From this standpoint, what comes of the demands for equal rights and opportunities in the relations of men and women? “Words, words, words,” without meaning or significance. Nature having placed woman at such a decided disadvantage in the path of life, of what avail are her protestations and cries for equality with man? In order to gratify one of her strongest natural desires, she is compelled to enter into relations with man of which the burdensome and painful consequences she alone has to bear. While man’s part in the relation is pleasurable throughout, woman purchases her enjoyment at an enormous price. And woman’s loss here is man’s clear gain. Up to the moment of her contracting to cooperate with man in the production of offspring woman may be considered a man’s equal, – ignoring the questions of physical vigor, weight and quality of the brain, etc., which cannot and need not be discussed here. A young girl would, under proper and normal conditions, enjoy equal opportunities with the young man in the matter of providing for her material and intellectual wants. Economic independence, education, culture, and refinement, – all these would be fully within her individual reach. But let her enter into love relations with the young man and resolve upon assuming parental obligations and responsibilities, and all is changed. She is no longer the equal of her male companion. For some time before and a long time after giving birth to a child, she is incapable of holding her independent position and of supporting herself. She needs the care, support, and service of others. She has to depend upon the man whom she made the father of her child, and who suffered no inconvenience from the new relation. With the equality of powers for self-support vanish all other equalities, – a fact of which believers in the equality of the sexes are not only well aware, but one which they continually use as an excellent argument for economic independence of women. Surely, then, they ought not to overlook this cruel, illusion-breaking fact of natural inequality of men and women resulting from the wide difference in the consequences which reproductive sexual association entails respectively upon the partners to the same. Women must either look to their male companions for making good the deficit thus occasioned in their accounts. – in which case the foundation is laid for despotism on the one side and subjection on the other, – or else find the means of support in excessive labor or in economy of consumption during the intervals of freedom from the restraints and burdens mentioned above, – which would make the burden of life heavier to her and so reduce her opportunities for development and recreation. In both cases – inequality.
WQ.16 “Few children” will no doubt be suggested as the solution of this difficulty. But is this desirable and compatible with out conception of a future happy condition? Children are a joy and a blessing to parents whom poverty, or the fear of poverty, does not transform into unnatural, suspicious, brutal, and eternally-discontented beings. I do not exactly entertain Mr. Lloyd’s doubts as regards the superiority of the motto, “More and better children,” over “Fewer and better children”; for, though not a Malthusian, I believe that some classes in society might well moderate their activity in the matter of reproduction. But I do not think human happiness would be subserved by carrying this limitation to an extreme. Moreover, this control over nature can only be successfully maintained by either the employment of artificial checks and preventives or by the practice of abstinence, – methods which nobody will recommend except as necessary evils, but which should never be resorted to in the absence of serious reasons.
WQ.17 Of course, if – as seems fairly established – mental exertion, access to other pleasures, comfortable surroundings generally are really important factors in checking fecundity and frequency in the matter of offspring, this last problem will of itself be most happily solved under the new conditions of life. But this prospect, while it may cheer the hearts of believers in small families, scarcely affords relief to those with whose position we are now mainly occupied.
WQ.18 Assuming sexual passion to be no stronger in women than in men (some are of the opinion that it is much stronger), there will always be a preponderance of forces and tendencies in favor of men in this natural antagonism. Man has no motive to deny himself gratification of his sexual desires except his dislike to be the cause or even the witness of the pain and suffering of those whom he loves, whereas woman, as we have seen, stakes her most vital interests when she follows her natural impulse.
WQ.19 Leaving it for advocates of independent homes to settle these difficulties for me, I may ask here, wherein would be the evil or danger of family life when, the economic necessity for it having disappeared, so far as the woman is concerned, under a more rational industrial system, it should be maintained in the higher interests and free wishes of both parties to the contract? Why should not the love relations remain much as they are today? With the tyranny and impertinent meddling of Church and State abolished, would not the relation between “man” and “wife” always be the relation of lover and sweetheart? Between true lovers who are really devoted to each other the relations are ideal. But legal marriage is the grave of love; material conditions and the current notions of virtue and morality destroy the individuality of the married woman, and she becomes the property of her husband. Remove these, and living together ceases to be an evil. The family relation in that state will continue to be perfect as long as they will continue at all.
WQ.20 Readers of What’s To Be Done know how Tchernychewsky’s heroes arranged their married life. To that and similar plans there can be no objection. It depends upon the temperaments and tastes of the individual persons. But why a man should not “make a home” for the woman he loves, I am unable to see. While he is providing the means, she is educating the children and surrounding him with comfort. When they cease to be happy together, they separate. And, as in the commercial sphere, the fear of probable competition suffices to prevent monopolistic iniquity without necessarily calling forth actual competition, so in family life under freedom the probability or rather certainty of the woman’s rebellion against the slightest manifestation of despotism will make the man very careful in his conduct and insure peace and respect between them.
WQ.21 I am not blind to the fact that my ideal contains the element of Communism, and also involves the concentration of love upon one person of the opposite sex at a time. But, as long as these are a spontaneous result of freedom, they are no more to be theoretically deplored than especially recommended. Personally I hold, however, that some sort of Communism is inevitable between lovers, and that “variety” in love is only a temporary demand of a certain period. A certain degree of experience is just as necessary in the matter of love as it is in any other branch of human affairs. Variety may be as truly the mother of unity (or duality, rather) as liberty is the mother of order. The inconstancy of young people is proverbial. But when free to experiment and take lessons in love, the outcome might be that finally each Apollo would find his Venus and retire with her to a harmonious and idyllic life.
WQ.22 Upon the last two phases of the question a great deal more might be said. I will return to them at some future time.
WQ.23 My remarks are far from being systematic or clear, but it is not my purpose to put forth anything positive or conclusive. I merely desire to provoke discussion and call out some explicit and elaborate statements from those of Liberty’s readers who, unlike the writer, have in their minds a more or less complete solution of the “Woman Question.”

Liberty 5.20, no. 124 (12 May 1888), pp. 6-7.

Proceed to Sarah E. Holmes’ reply to Victor Yarros

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